Forced Labor

What kind of labor movement do we need in the era of Trump?

These should be exciting, if terrifying, times to be part of the labor movement. Following the actions at airports last weekend — a crucial part of which was a one-hour strike against pickups at JFK called by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance — novelist Francine Prose called for a general strike in the Guardian. Calls for a “#NationalStrike” on February 17th have been circulating on Twitter and other social media. And labor lawyers Moshe Marvit and Leo Gertner published a piece in the Washington Post, “Where’s the Best Place to Resist Trump? At Work,” whose pullquote is “From solidarity strikes to slowdowns and sit-ins, workplace revolt is a key strategy in opposing the new administration.”

Meanwhile, the institutional labor movement is under existential threat. National Right to Work legislation was introduced into Congress this week, and with Republican majorities in both houses and You-Know-Who as president, it is hard to imagine it not passing. In the state where I got my start in the labor movement, Iowa, new Republican majorities are planning to make it “the next Wisconsin” by gutting or rescinding entirely the state’s collective bargaining law for public-sector employees.

In a moment of rising and widespread militancy, with so many people feeling under attack by the same administration that is aiming to liquidate the labor movement, this should be an opportunity for what’s left of organized labor to make common cause with all other groups resisting the Trump administration. Organized labor still has significant resources (and, in some places, expertise) that can be useful to a broad movement — and would benefit immensely from being seen as a champion of the whole, broad working class rather than as a special-interest group of certain privileged groups of workers.

And yet, instead of uniting against this existential threat, too many unions are playing nice with Trump. And most others are simply paralyzed, or responding with the usual round of “call your legislator.”

Historically, labor movements have been a crucial part of resisting and bringing down authoritarian regimes. Our current labor movement in America is not up to that task. How do we get there?

I am a strong believer in engaging in both thought and practice. So first, some things we should be thinking about, discussing and debating with our fellow members:

  1. We should remember that our power as a labor movement comes not just from the numbers of our members, but the fact that we organize workers in workplaces. Too many unions have recently abandoned the struggle to defend conditions on the shop floor — whether that is a factory, a hospital, or an office — and focused too much effort on elections. If our members don’t see us looking out for their daily needs, why should they take our advice on how to vote?
  1. We should also remember that ultimately, our power comes from our ability to disrupt production — and not just production in the sense of “making things” that happens in factories, but also moving things, processing paperwork, selling things, teaching people. We, as workers, make the world run every day. If we have the courage to take collective action, we can make it stop, or run differently.
  1. We should embrace the political strike – especially since probably the most successful strike in recent memory was the eminently political Chicago teacher’s strike of 2012. American unions have generally been allergic to the “political strike,” preferring to adhere to the political compromises of the 1930s-1950s, in which, essentially, labor agreed to only strike over workplace issues in exchange for the government not using the power of the state to crush it. With Trump in office, that deal should be off.
  1. We should realize that the labor movement, in the state we are in now, cannot assume the leading role that we presumed to play in social movements in the past. If there is going to be a successful general strike against Trump, in a particular city or nationwide, it is far more likely to be initiated by immigrant bodega owners than by factory workers. That doesn’t mean labor should not seize the opportunity to join forces with other sectors of the working class — and even “petty bourgeois” sectors from oppressed populations — to use militant action to resist Trump and put forward a positive working-class program.

What does this mean for our practice in the immediate term? Here are some thoughts:*

  1. The labor movement — not necessarily the AFL-CIO (see below) but some constellation of forces including parts of organized labor — can prioritize coming up with a bold jobs plan that confronts corporate power rather than kowtows to it. We need a believable and easily understandable program, which can be explained on a leaflet or in a ten-minute organizing conversation, about how we can actually force the private sector to create jobs. Something like a 100% tax on corporate profits if they exceed a certain profits-to-jobs ratio. It doesn’t need to be “politically possible,” it doesn’t need to be fully worked-out, it just needs to be intelligible to the workers we represent, and the working people we hope to win to our side. Otherwise, we (and the broader anti-Trump movement) will continue to lose the jobs issue to Trump.
  1. Activists at all levels of the labor movement can organize flying squads – groups of workers who know each other through a common workplace or local and commit to taking rapid response action together. Let’s face it, our official structures are not nimble enough to respond to the rapidly changing politics of the current moment. Flying squads provide a structure that is highly flexible, while providing horizontal accountability to each other and informal accountability to the workplaces and locals they are based out of. Flying squads can mobilize workers to grassroots-initiated actions like the Women’s March, emergency protests like the airport mobilizations, or militant actions like occupations or general strikes, even when official union structures are lukewarm or hesitant.
  1. Instead of bemoaning the lack of involvement of institutional labor, or particular sectors of the working class, in initiatives like this February 17 #NationalStrike, labor leaders and activists can see it as an opportunity to engage in conversations with our members about the tactic of a general strike, about the strike as a weapon to fight back against Trump.
  1. The AFL-CIO is not going to play a leadership role in resisting Trump. In fact, large sectors of the labor movement are probably not even interested in resisting Trump. Over the past decades, labor activists have built important networks of the most progressive national, regional and local unions in the US when the AFL-CIO has failed to stand up for basic working-class issues: US Labor Against the War, the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Healthcare and Labor for Bernie prominent among them. Coalescing these forces into a new left or progressive labor alliance or federation, which can articulate a clearly progressive vision and program for workers in the U.S., would be a huge step forward not only for the labor movement, but for the entire resistance to Trump.

*For the record, and lest I be accused of being another random lefty prescribing impossible tasks to the labor movement, I am a rank-and-file member of UE Local 203 in Burlington Vermont. I will be doing as much as I can on #2 and #3, and encouraging my union to promote and participate in #1 and #4.


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